Literary journalism is….
The brilliant Rosalie Ham was in residence at McCraith House in June/July this year. Here, she shares an astonishing reflection on her time in Dromana, including pictures of the writer at work. Enjoy:
The final rewrite; a familiar story.
Much effort was required to reach the tranquility McCraith House promised so that I could work on my manuscript…the irony being that I had to abandon it to organize the two elderly beings and their dietary and medical complications that kept me from the manuscript in the first place. Preparation started with trip to the photocopying place. 360 happy A4 pages. Oh! How smug I was.
I paid bills, rescheduled appointments, schmoozed neighbours to monitor bins, then cook for the loved one, and the dog. The trip to NSW to deliver both, with accompanying sleeping accouterments, medications and 34 dietary specific, portion sized meals, was pleasant, but back in Melbourne’s arctic conditions, I waited at a tram stop in sideways rain for the mobile germ incubator to convey me to my farewell celebration, which was mostly screeching through a loud restaurant din. I woke with a roaring headache and razor blades in my throat, so emptied the fridge and everything else into my car, secured the premises, turned off printers, chargers, radios and arrived at McCraith House in the freezing side ways hail. Then I reversed over the fridge contents and triggered the house alarm.
With the door locked and the heater humming, I remove my bra, settle to read and reacquaint, red editing biro in hand. I told myself the storm beyond the glass wall would cease and the sun would reveal the bay. It would be dramatic and fabulous. Inspiring.
Two days later;
Feeling better – thanks to cough syrup, lemon juice and analgesics – I have forced myself out of bed, alive and grateful for the (crushed) Weebix, but hungry for real food. At the IGA I purchased vegetables, eggs, fruit, muesli, yoghurt and peppermint tea.
You will recognize this bit.
The bay is a dappled sheet of tinfoil beneath a vast lace tablecloth of sunny clouds. Homing pigeons exult in a tight, grey flock in the low air above suburban rooves. My red biro is working well. At page fifty, finally, I admit nothing is moving. There is too much exposition, insufficient action, paragraphs don’t have an emotional heart, sentences don’t progress the story and syntax is sloppy. And there are bloody 360 pages of this shit.
I start by moving one scene, just one, telling myself it won’t alter much. Then I confront the fact that I am lying, which prompts the confession; “I am further from the end of this process than I have cheerfully told myself, the agent, publisher, friends, family. I have only 11 days to re arrange the thing entirely, apply the red biro again and re write.” This prompts the next impulse; “Wine and chocolate will help and I will detox later because no great work was ever written without coffee, alcohol, nicotine and chocolate. I need to nail this f***ing manuscript.”
At the IGA I purchase microwave meals, supermarket Tiramisu, red wine, plastic bread, baked beans, tinned peaches, iced vovos, coffee, chocolate, scissors, sticky tape and a red highlighter. Then I spend days cutting and sticky taping pages together, which I place in chronological order all over the red 1960s furniture. No one need know I edited using primary school techniques. I peruse the mess I have made and reach for Tiramisu, because now I have only 9 days* left.
The homing pigeons swing up from the treetops in a neat bunch, and one loses its way, dives to the left when the flock washes right, then flaps frantically to merge with the feathery swirl again, and behind them, a spectacular (inspiring) storm rumbles across the bay. I decide to rewrite the storm slapping across my dry plains on page 205, but really, there is no reason to add pigeons to my literary storm. It’s a contrivance, showing off. Am I showing off? Is the storm metaphor even relevant, does it inform themes or ideas, or is it just showcasing description? Are all symbols, images and alliterations, vivid and tight…relevant? Have I dramatized the life force of the characters so they steadily overcome their situation and progress the narrative? Is the reader close enough to the action? Is emotional and psychological development present? What was I trying to say in the first place? Will anyone care about my ‘message’? Why am I trying to write? Should I make it stylized, add rhyme or have someone fuck a lamppost so reviewers will get excited – ‘It’s different.’ But what will fucking a lamppost say about human relationships with inanimate objects in rural Australia? Why am I stuck in a room on my own typing a story that an editor will dismember? “I don’t believe the character of Isobel. Women truck drivers? Really?”
Why can’t I be just a normal person? I will re train, I will go back to aged care. I will be home every day at 4:00, prepare a succulent meal, watch gripping TV series, spend weekends drinking coffee, perusing newspapers or exercising, WITHOUT GUILT. I will still end up dead no matter what I do.
I channel surf to avoid advertisements and the federal election. ‘Cast Away’ is on one channel, ‘Bridesmaids’ on another and I am consuming wine and chocolate so it will not be wasted when I start my detox. In ‘Bridesmaids,’ the main protagonist, Annie, miserable and self-pitying, watches ‘Cast Away.’ Wilson drifts far from a distraught Tom Hanks. Annie weeps. During the ad, I switch over to ‘Cast away’ and Wilson is still floating off into the vast green sea and Tom Hanks is drowning, and I am weeping. Like Annie, I am not weeping about Wilson, I whine like a naked piano in wind about my miserable situation, how stupid I am to think I can write another novel given the first three were flukes, and people already know I am a fraud, the desperate pigeon behind the flock.
Two days to go:
A writing session lasts 15 hours and I don’t even notice. My story has a sense of order, the scenes have joined hands to consolidate my intention, the landscape supports the characters as they dramatize the ideas that carry the reader. A few sentences showcasing my writerly muscles remain, but they are subsumed by the action – not contrived or forced. I might embroider a little more, turn some prosaic action into a verity, but there are no lampposts. There isn’t much sex at all. I gave it up after The Dressmaker.
I shower and dress (complete with bra) because it is Election Day. The luxury cars of the affluent coastal dwellers have left no room for my earthy real car. Overhead, the birds soar and I see that one pigeon flaps happily around the edges of the common whorl. No one is handing out how to vote cards for my party, but I know what to do. I am clever, an artist. I write novels.
*A day is any period of time between waking and sleeping.
“It was January, 2015, I had just arrived at the Butterfly House for a three-week writing residency in the small town of Dromana in the Mornington Peninsular south of Melbourne.”
So begins a gorgeous essay by the writer Dai Fan – a testament to a profound and catalysing residency experience in a unique location. The essay is published in Peril Magazine, an excellent journal of Asian-Australian Arts and Culture with which non/fictionLab has established an ongoing relationship through the WrICE program. Dai Fan read a draft of this piece at the 2016 WrICE residency in Yangshuo, China, in April.
Read the full essay here.
Image: clockwise from top left: David Carlin, Francesca Rendle-Short, DAI Fan, Ali Barker, Lucinda Strahan, Clare Renner
Tuesday 8 September
nonfictionLab’s Literary Journalism node presents
Prior to becoming editor of the Monthly, Nick Feik was the magazine’s online editor. He created the Monthly’s online video service SlowTV (now the Monthly Video) and the daily email newsletters the Shortlist Daily and Politicoz.
He has written for the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Drum, The Saturday Paper and the Monthly.
Nick has also worked as a programmer at the Melbourne International Film Festival, produced four seasons of television for Channel 31 and co-produced the feature film Errors of the Human Body (2012).
Tuesday 8 September
Swanston Academic Building,
Building 80, Level 4, Room 11
445 Swanston Street, Melbourne